Everybody knows the justifiably famous Napa and Sonoma Valleys. If you're looking to take the next step, venture into California’s less-famous wine regions, where family-owned wineries welcome novices and experts alike, and tasting fees are low to non-existent. Most of these well-hidden wine countries are near the San Francisco Bay area, perfect for weekend escapes.
Beyond Napa and Sonoma, and past the Russian River Valley, lie the wineries of Mendocino County. No more than 100 miles north of San Francisco, this unsung winemaking region is hospitable to rich Mediterranean reds and brawny, fruit-forward zinfandels. Family farms line Hwy 101 just south and north of Hopland, a tiny farm town. The downtown wine shop Sip! Mendocino should be your first stop. There the expert proprietor pours handpicked flights of wines ranging from across the county, including rare vintages you might not even get to taste at the wineries themselves. Down the street next to a bakery, sunlight-filled Graziano Family of Wines brings together four different labels, distilled from the fruits of labor of the owner’s grandparents, Italian immigrants who planted the first grapes in Mendocino County before the Prohibition era. For earthy, flavor-packed wine-country cooking, dash north to Patrona in Ukiah. Locally grown ingredients glow in garden salads, flatbread pizzas and seasonal game dishes, exhibiting equal helpings of French and Italian tastes.
The biggest appellation in Mendo is the Anderson Valley, known for its delicate Alsatian whites and sparkling wines as much as for its specialty pinot noirs, all thanks to sun-drenched days and coastal fog drifting over the vineyards at night. Follow winding Hwy 153 west to the podunk town of Boonville. Rest up for more tastings at the Boonville Hotel, with its chicly rehabbed, yet still rustic rooms overhanging the highway. A short drive past Philo, Hwy 128 is lined with family run wineries. With a redwood-built tasting room and picnic deck, Navarro Vineyards is the most popular stop. Starring on a lengthy tasting menu are Navarro’s dry, estate-bottled gewürtztraminer and a smoky pinot noir (also available for teetotalers in juice form). The sparkling wines of Roederer Estate are handcrafted by the same French family that makes Cristal champagne. At this humble countryside winery, delicate pressings of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes use only 70% of the cuvée (ie the first 120 gallons of juice) – the winemakers are picky, and it pays.
In the northern San Joaquin Valley of central California, where breezes from the Sacramento River delta soothe the hot vineyards of Lodi, more zinfandel grapes are grown than anywhere else in the world. Particularly old vines have often been tended by the same family for over a century. Lodi’s diverse soil is sometimes rocky, sometimes a fine sandy loam, giving its zins distinctive character. To get here from Hopland, the scenic route takes you east into Lake County around Clear Lake, which boasts its own noteworthy winemakers like deeply rooted Steele Wines, where an adventurous lineup of whites and reds includes Writer’s Block pinot noir, bottled with a portrait of the Bard; and high-society Langtry Estate & Vineyards, a Napa-style winery that makes a bright, soft petite sirah from vineyards planted in the late 19th century by actress Lillie Langtry.
Hwy 29 flows slowly south through Calistoga, St Helena, Yountville and finally Napa, after which Hwy 12 slingshots east across the delta toward Lodi. Get your first taste of Lodi’s powerful, sun-soaked zins at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, where 100 local vintages are sold by the solid-wood tasting bar. Then drive out into the vineyards to sample straight from the source. Michael-David Winery is shockingly touristy, with its farm stand, café and tasting-room complex, but its flagship 7 Deadly Zins, a jammy blend of seven different old-vine grapes, merits a stop. Boutique wineries and experimental labels by more famous names are poured at the Italian-style Vino Piazza in Lockeford, where you can park your car, order a bistro lunch and afterward amble between tasting rooms. For zin lovers, it’s heaven to sample dozens of different vineyards to detect the subtle differences of terroir (a French word describing the unique flavor of a geographical place, based on climate, soil and topography). With historical atmosphere and ultramodern amenities, the bed-and-breakfast inn Wine & Roses distinguishes itself with a sophisticated Cal-Ital restaurant, where apple-spinach pizzas and braised pot roast with parsnips are served on a leafy patio.
A worthy side trip from the Lodi region, Amador County might be something of an underdog among California's winemaking regions, but a thriving circuit of family wineries, Gold Rush history and local characters make for excellent wine touring without a whiff of pretension. The region lays claim to the oldest zinfandel vines in the United States and the surrounding country has a lot in common with this celebrated variety - bold and richly colored, earthy and constantly surprising.
To begin the circuit of Amador wineries, leave Hwy 49 in Plymouth and follow Plymouth-Shenandoah Rd, taking you through rows of vines basking in the heat. You'll see hill after rolling hill covered with rocky rows of neatly pruned vines, soaking up gallons of too-bright sun. Tastings at the family-operated wineries around the county have little in common with those in the Napa Valley – most hosts are welcoming and helpful, offering free tastes and information about their operations. Be sure to stop at Drytown Cellars, one of the most fun tasting rooms in the county thanks to a gregarious host and an array of stunning reds, and take a picnic to the bucolic Sobon Estate – founded in 1856, and home to the Shenandoah Valley Museum.
Backtracking to the Bay area, you’ll pass the emerging Livermore wine country, then coast down the peninsula into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Vines were first planted among these coastal redwood forests in the mid-19th century. One of the first US regions to be awarded its own appellation, it was a cabernet sauvignon from these rugged, little-known mountains that bested mighty French Bordeaux in the Judgment of Paris in 1976. Taste the championship winemakers’ most recent harvests at legendary Ridge Vineyards. Heading over the mountains on twisted Hwy 9 or Skyline Dr to Santa Cruz, you’ll pass dozens more wineries, most open for tastings only on Saturday afternoons or during the quarterly “Passport Weekend” festivals. In case you’re wondering, estate-bottled pinot noirs are the specialty around here.
Along the coast north of Santa Cruz, Bonny Doon Vineyard has a cult following for its unusual varietals and original Rhône blends like Le Cigare Volant (“The Flying Cigar” – ask about the actual French law that prohibits UFOs from landing in vineyards). In downtown Santa Cruz, Vinocruz is an airy wine shop with a modern stainless-steel tasting bar, where an ever-changing lineup of wines by famous Santa Cruz Mountain winemakers like Kathryn Kennedy, Thomas Fogarty and David Bruce, to name just a few, are poured. Also downtown, Soif (French for “thirst,” get it?) is where bon vivant foodies flock for a heady selection of 50 international wines by the glass and tempting Old and New World tastes.
Further south, Monterey County is a much younger wine region. Although most of its vineyards are found far away from the coast, you can taste vintages from as far away as the Santa Lucia Highlands right on Cannery Row at A Taste of Monterey. This wine shop and tasting room has panoramic sea views and thoughtful exhibits on barrel-making and cork production. East of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Carmel Valley Rd takes you past organic farms, vineyards and equestrian ranches and into the tiny village of Carmel Valley, where many established Monterey County wineries have tasting rooms, and country bistros have invitingly shady garden patios.
Further south is Paso Robles, a hot spot for San Luis Obispo County wines. With an unprepossessing tasting room, Martin & Weyrich is a stand-out producer of Italian varietals, including noteworthy Tuscan blends. Travel west along Hwy 46 to discover scores of small family-run wineries, including many zinfandel specialists, like Dark Star Cellars, which also crafts outrageously rich reds and Bordeaux-style blends. Closer to Hwy 101, Zenaida Cellars is a Zen master of zin, along with lush estate-bottled red blends like Fire Sign and Zephyr. Rent its Winemaker’s Loft and watch the sunset over the vineyards from your own private porch. Paso Robles’ downtown square is bordered by even more boutique tasting rooms and outstanding California and European-style wine-country restaurants. Vinoteca wine bar will send you soaring with its wine flights, artisan cheese plates and tapas.